COLLEGE PARK — If there was a common theme to the Maryland men’s basketball team fading over the final seven games last season, it was in the way the Terps got pushed around — even bullied — on the boards by opponents that were decidedly more blue collar than themselves.
It was the reason why Mark Turgeon brought in 6-foot-9, 250-pound graduate transfer Sean Obi to join a pair of freshmen on this year’s team — 6-4, 205-pound guard Darryl Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph) and 6-10, 245-pound center Bruno Fernando.
While none of them are leading Maryland in rebounding — sophomore forward Justin Jackson is averaging 10 and sophomore point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. is averaging 7.5 after two games — the newcomers have seemingly brought a new persona to the Terps.
“Thankfully Coach brought in a lot of physical players such as Sean, Bruno, Darryl, so that really helped us a lot,” said Cowan, the team's smallest rotation player, after tying his career high with nine rebounds in Sunday’s 96-43 win over UMES. “Last year we always struggled on the boards in games. I think we’ve been killing the boards these last two games. I think that comes from toughness. Not only is it Sean and other guys rebounding, but it’s also our whole team become more physical as a unit.”
The Terps, who finished 11th in rebounding in the Big Ten last season, will see whether their new physicality and toughness are merely the byproduct of playing two smaller, overmatched opponents in Stony Brook and UMES. Maryland outrebounded Stony Brook by 16 and UMES by 25
Butler, which visits Xfinity Center on Wednesday as part of the Gavitt Tipoff Games, is the kind of team that gave Maryland problems a year ago. Led by 6-7, 220-pound senior forward Kelan Martin, the Bulldogs are more gritty than pretty.
Not that new coach LaVall Jordan is without his own rebounding problems. After joining the Big East in 2013-14 and finishing first in rebounding in their second season, the Bulldogs were last in the conference in rebounding a year ago.
Still, Turgeon knows that Butler should provide more competition, especially physically, than either of Maryland’s first two opponents.
“I’m anxious to see what we’re really about, how we match up [against] teams that bang against us,” Turgeon said Tuesday. “They’re a very physical team. They really don’t have a bad player that they play … and they’re well-coached. It will be a challenge for us.”
One of the preseason goals Turgeon set for his team was to try to outrebound its opponent on a nightly basis, something Maryland rarely did consistently last season, especially as the season wore on and the Terps wore down.
Losing Michal Cekovsky for the last six games with a broken ankle didn’t help, though the 7-1 center has never been a voracious rebounder throughout his career. The problem predated the Terps losing their tallest player.
Even some of their early-season wins over lesser nonconference opponents were closer than they should’ve been in 2016-17 because of a mismatch on the boards, most notably a five-point win over Towson where the Tigers held a 46-33 rebounding advantage.
Obi, who was one of the nation’s leaders in rebounds per minutes played (9.3 rebounds in 26.4 minutes per game) as a freshman at Rice, knew what his role was going to be after graduating from Duke last summer and coming to Maryland.
In only 14 minutes so far in the two games, Obi has nine rebounds and eight points, and has made all four shots he has taken from close range. He has also freed up space with some solid screens to give Cowan and the other perimeter players room to drive or shoot.
“I love to rebound, and I love to be physical — obviously that’s one of the reasons I came here,” Obi said Tuesday. “We’re going to play a lot of physical teams as the year goes on. I’m going to continue to do what I do to try to help this team and try to help this team win.”
Obi has already seen a difference in the team’s physicality and toughness since he arrived in late summer.
“Absolutely, that’s one of our goals as a team this year; I think it is,” Obi said. “Coach Turgeon has tried to talk about it a lot this year from last year. I feel like I’ve done a really good job imposing my will in practice, getting the other big guys to play at a high level when it comes to physicality.”
Obi, whose ability to rebound consistently at Duke was compromised by the knee injury he sustained two years ago and kept him off the court most of last season, said: “Bruno is really physical, not just myself. Darryl is a hell of a rebounder as a big guard. And all the guys we had from last year, Ceko and everyone else, has improved drastically. Just keep being physical because the game we are going to play, the Big Ten, it’s really a bruiser’s league when the time comes. It’s going to be a big deal when it comes to physicality.”
As much as the arrival of Obi, Fernando and Morsell have meant to the team’s more physical style, there’s also the fact that Maryland’s returning players — specifically Jackson, Cowan and sophomore wing Kevin Huerter — all put on much-needed weight and muscle.
“We’re a year older, we’re a lot stronger,” Huerter said Tuesday. “ [The coaches are] a little bit harder on us this year. They expect big things offensively and defensively. Obviously bringing in three guys known for being physical helps, too.”